Past Lying by Val McDermid

Publication of a new police procedural featuring Val McDermid’s intrepid Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie is something to get excited about. In Past Lying, the streets of Edinburgh have never been so ominous—and empty—as when this story takes place in April 2020, at the height of the covid epidemic. Authors were of mixed minds about whether to write about covid, thinking “too much already!” but McDermid makes the lockdown an effective handicap to Pirie, whose investigation of a not-quite-stone-cold case must (at least in theory) accommodate the public health restrictions.

Pirie and Detective Sergeant Daisy Mortimer are camped out in Pirie’s boyfriend Hamish’s fancy flat while he has relocated up north to tend his sheep farm in the Highlands. He’s bought a former gin still up there and is manufacturing hand sanitizer.

As ever, Pirie has a couple of pots bubbling away. One complication in her life is a subplot involving a Syrian refugee being hunted by assassins from his home country. I’ve always admired how McDermid keeps two powerful story strands going, such that when she switches from one to the other, I’m instantly engrossed again. In this instance, the secondary plot isn’t as compelling as it might be, and the exigencies of covid mean there is less interaction with some of Pirie’s colleagues in various crime labs who serve such a satisfying role in other works.

The main plot is more squarely in the domain of Pirie’s Historic Cases Unit. In touch with her by telephone, Detective Constable Jason ‘The Mint’ Murray reports that a librarian, reviewing papers submitted by the estate of a deceased Tartan Noir crime writer, Jake Stein, has run across the opening chapters of an unpublished manuscript. They describe a murder that sounds eerily similar to an unsolved disappearance from the previous year, in which an Edinburgh University student named Lara Hardie vanished.

What Jake Stein has written compel Pirie and Mortimer to dig into his past. Stein was apparently not a very nice guy; he was in the middle of a marital calamity; and his formerly successful career was on the skids. His only remaining friend is another author who’d come and play chess with him and where Stein would talk about “the perfect murder.” The parallels between Stein’s real life and his fictional book are striking, so that the narrative takes on the characteristics of nested dolls. I found myself having to stop and think, am I reading Stein’s book? Or about him?

If you have read other McDermid books featuring Pirie (this is the seventh), you may have run across DC Jason Murray previously. You may recall he’s sometimes considered not the brightest bulb, but in this book, he finally comes into his own. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the stresses of lockdown, but I found Pirie a less sympathetic character than usual. At times, she’s almost mean. She pays lip service to the lockdown rules, but ignores them whenever she wants to. The justification that every day is important to the family of a disappeared person wore a little thin.

A crime novelist is an ideal character to obsess about the perfect crime, and Stein’s draft-cum-confession, as you read it, raises a multitude of good questions—not necessarily relevant to his plot, nor his personal life, but about Pirie’s investigation. Nesting dolls again.

While McDermid has certainly earned the sobriquet of Britain’s ‘Queen of Crime,’ I confess to a slight disappointment with this latest book. Of course, it’s still head and shoulders above many crime novels, and if you like the Pirie character, you won’t want to miss it.

Kill Show by Daniel Swearen-Becker

Author Daniel Sweren-Becker must have been well tuned in to the zeitgeist when he conceived Kill Show, his newly published mysteryl that delves into important critiques of the true crime genre. Written in the style of a television documentary script, the novel consists almost entirely of short verbatim quotes from 26 of the story’s principals, with no descriptions unless a character happens to provide one. The principals are being re-interviewed a decade after the events they’re called upon to explore. The book is their testimony.

Ten years earlier, in suburban Frederick County, Maryland, 16-year-old Sara Parcell disappeared. Her parents and brother panicked. Her friends were bereft. School officials tried to console. Local police were baffled. Now, as they talk about Sara, her family, the community, the disappearance and its aftermath, they amplify, contextualize, and at times contradict each other. Piece by piece, the story comes into focus.

In the emotional turmoil immediately after Sara’s disappearance, her dad, Dave Parcell, waves his bank statement in front of the cameras camped outside his home. He has $1762. That’s all. But he’ll put it every dollar of it up for a reward. A dramatic moment the news cameras catch, but not as viral as the cell-phone video Sara’s brother Jack makes a few moments later, showing Dave and his wife Jeannette back in their house, embracing, Jeannette in hysterics.

Across the country in Hollywood, Jack’s video sparks a brilliant programming idea in the head of Casey Hawthorne, a reality TV show producer. She convinces her boss to pay for her and a production crew to fly to Maryland, and then convinces the Parcell family that a reality television series—Searching for Sara—will bring massive attention to the disappearance and help get their daughter back.

They are desperate. They agree. To say Casey Hawthorne is full of herself, manipulative, and not to be trusted hardly describes the extent of the void in her character. Once in Maryland, right at the start, she makes a strategic choice that negatively influences everything that comes afterward. She meets Detective Felix Calderon in a bar, and, rather than revealing who she is and why she’s really in town, she lies. And sleeps with him. As a result, when aspects of the case start to deteriorate, the lead detective on the case has no credibility with the public, his superiors in the police department, or the prosecutor.

Of course, many more people involved in this debacle are lying. And, if not lying outright, they’re not telling the whole truth, or they’re shading it to justify their actions. Many characters undergo a shift in perspective over the course of the weeks the search drags on and shocking revelations emerge; others seem incapable of taking new information on board. In the end, quite a few Frederick County residents have reason to take a hard look at the role they played in the outcome.

When Sweren-Becker wants to delve into ethical grey areas, he provides comments from a pop culture critic or a sociology professor. In that way too, the novel reads very much like a real-life television documentary. This device never becomes tedious or heavy-handed. Meanwhile, in real life, true-crime dramas have come in for criticism, even though they’re still immensely popular. (A 2014 13-episode podcast, Serial, also about the murder of a Maryland teenager was downloaded more than 340 million times in the first four years of its availability.) Sweren-Becker’s story effectively demonstrates the main critiques of the genre: exploiting real people for entertainment, looking for sensation rather than examining systemic problems, and objectifying victims. Casey Hawthorne’s Searching for Sara is definitely guilty on the first two counts. If you have your own reservations about the public obsession with true-crime shows, this book will confirm them. Partly due to the format and partly to the compelling situation, this is a quick read, yet a profound one. Highly recommended.

More critique of the true-crime phenomenon are in my recent blog post: “Is peak true crime in the rearview?”

Two Movies to Watch For

A Haunting in Venice
Kenneth Branagh’s third film outing as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is certainly loaded with stylish touches (trailer). A dark and stormy night, water everywhere. A gloomy palazzo where a Halloween party for orphans is staged. A crashing chandelier. Masked gondoliers. A psychic invited in the hope she can communicate with a former opera star’s dead daughter. Directed by Branagh and written by Michael Green.

Oh, and a houseful of suspects. Branagh has made a third try at getting right the mustache which prompted so many cackles in Murder on the Orient Express. This one is . . . interesting. Layers. No sign of the scar mentioned in Death on the Nile as the reason for growing the thing in the first place. Although the first two movies hewed closer to the original Agatha Christie novel, this story based on her novel Hallowe’en Party, has strayed off into territory of its own.

Super supporting cast—Tina Fey as mystery writer Ariadne Oliver who inveigles Poirot into investigating the medium; Kelly Reilly as the opera singer; Michelle Yeoh as the psychic; and the brilliant Camille Cottin as the housekeeper. (You may remember Cottin as the star theatrical agent in the French comedy series, Call My Agent.) And, you may recognize Jude Hill as the boy who played the lead in Branagh’s Belfast. Here he plays the 12-year-old son of a PTSD-afflicted doctor, played by Jamie Dornan, his father in Belfast too.

All you’ll miss if you wait for Haunting to stream is the scenery. A Gothic pall overlays the story, but the plot itself is a tad weak. Not mysterious enough for a mystery and not scary enough for horror. Christie’s original must have been shocking, though, because it’s the only one of her books in which a child was the murder victim. Not here. Here it’s Poirot who almost becomes the victim of apple-bobbing. Not great, but you don’t leave the theater feeling bludgeoned by sound effects, either.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 76%; audiences: 78%.

Theater Camp
While the movies about kids’ summer camps have worn their jokes thin as tissue-paper already, don’t let that discourage you from seeing this fresh take on the genre from directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman (trailer). It stars Tony award-winner Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen), Molly Gordon as loyal camp counselors and Noah Galvin as tech support, plus an ensemble of hammy, misfit campers.

The long-time owner of a theater camp in the Adirondacks (it’s Camp AdirondACTS) falls ill and is unable to carry on. Her son (Jimmy Tatro), who has no feeling for theater, kids, or camp takes over. He fancies himself a finance genius, which seems in his mind to consist of writing himself many inspiring post-its. Can the counselors save the day?

Fun and refreshing, it’s what you’d call a “small movie,” and since it’s already probably too late to see it on the Big Screen, Hulu is streaming it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85%; audiences: 80%.

Crime Stories That Take the Heat

Heavy-duty noir seems not quite right for sunny, summery August. So here are two recent books light and bright enough to compete with surf and sand: The Tumbling Girl by Bridget Walsh and the comic novel Clonk! by JP Rieger.

The new Victorian-era mystery The Tumbling Girl blends murderous deeds with a healthy dose of romance between an unlikely pair of investigators. It evokes the sights, smells, and sounds of 1870s London, while believably capturing the social class distinctions of the day.

Minnie Ward is a retired music hall performer who writes songs and skits, and day-to-day oversees the Variety Theatre’s mix of tumblers, tightrope walkers, singers, not-so-funny comedians, Shakespearean actors, plate-spinners, and more, including a troublesome monkey. With this crew, something is always going on—cast-member drama, audience eruptions, the monkey in the rafters peeing on the customers below. Author Walsh has created a world that is intriguing, full of story possibilities, and rife with unexpected developments.

Albert Easterbrook is a public school-educated private detective. His friends in the police force are tracking a serial killer who has targeted the city’s women for a decade. Footsteps in the dark and chance encounters can be more than a little anxiety-provoking for Minnie and her friends.

When one of the acrobats is found hanged below the pest-ridden Adelphi Arches, the police dismiss her death as a suicide. But Minnie and the girl’s mother don’t believe it; they want Albert to find out what really happened. Minnie volunteers to help him, despite his objections that it’s too dangerous, as it proves to be. You also have a chance to see a bit of Victorian high-life, as members of the most exclusive gentlemen’s club in London seem to be involved.

If I had to sum up this story in a single word, it might be “romp,” because it moves fast, there’s plenty of entertainment along the way, and, even if you’re pretty sure where Minnie and Albert’s relationship will end up, getting there is half the fun.

In Clonk! you follow eight guys, friends from high school, who’ve managed to stay in touch and call on each other’s help for all kinds of matters, great and small. You might term the book a police procedural, because the main character, Kev Dixit, is a Baltimore, Maryland, police officer, but his procedures are hardly textbook. He has a brilliant way of subverting the system and solving problems outside—sometimes far outside—any approved method. His way of outfoxing the detective exam is LOL.

Two of these longtime friends are not nearly as bright as they think they are and become embroiled in a fraudulent real estate scheme. Arson is involved. In their worst possible moment, their old pal Kev helps them out, along with Chris, an ever-optimistic actor and terrible singer who believes his big theatrical break is always just around the corner, and Brian (the Troll), an undertaker. Yes, a dead body is involved.

Three more alumni of their Catholic high school who play smaller, but plot-vital parts are a disgraced doctor, an agoraphobic FBI agent, and an over-the-top attorney called in to save the doctor’s bacon.

You’ll find some uniquely Baltomorean touches and topics here, yet you can get the sense that these guys are essentially well-meaning, occasional screw-ups whom you could find almost anywhere. Occasionally they reminisce about their high school days as (no surprise!) the weirdos no one else wanted to spend time with. These backward glances lay the groundwork for how they react in a crisis as adults. And the crises keep coming.

A lot happens in this book’s 217 pages, as the world of policing the Dixit way hurtles forward. The novel is a testament to the value of loyalty and friendship, with Dixit, as author Rieger says, “a fortress in the storm of life’s absurdities.” Loved it!

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Two Novels that Couldn’t Be More Different

Between Two Strangers by Kate White

Skyler Moore can’t escape the past in Kate White’s new psychological mystery, Between Two Strangers. The disappearance of her younger sister twelve years earlier not only haunts her, but forever damaged her relationship with her mother.

This psychic blow ended her graduate studies. She left Boston for New York, and she put her art studies behind her. Now nearing her mid-thirties, increasingly isolated, she has no promising relationship that would get her the one thing she really wants—a child. You may think as I did that she isn’t a very promising maternal figure for any number of reasons, but a child is what she wants.

At least she’s started creating art again. She’s good too, and a small gallery in lower Manhattan is organizing a show for her. As the show’s opening approaches, a call from a lawyer in the tony suburb of Scarsdale changes everything. He’s the estate administrator for a recently deceased pharmaceutical executive whose name she doesn’t recognize. He’s left her a bequest. How much? $3.5 million. It’s a life-saver, but unraveling the dead man’s motive will take some work.

If you are as skeptical of coincidence as Sherlock Holmes and most police detectives are, you may think Skyler is a bit slow to realize there’s a relationship between her windfall and the harassment she’s newly subjected to. But once she finally tumbles to it, White keeps the story twists coming.

Chapters alternate between Skyler’s current life and the fateful weekend Chloe disappeared. Each leaves you on the brink of learning something critical, giving time to develop your own theories (all of mine were wrong!). With the story’s nice pacing, it’s a highly entertaining page-turner.

White is the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine and author of several previous thrillers.

Back to the Dirt by Frank Bill

If you imagined the full spectrum of crime, mystery, and thriller stories, you might slot tidy Miss Marple and the cosies on the left extreme. Well, hang onto your hat, because Frank Bill will shoot you all the way to the right, literally Back to the Dirt. His story is reminiscent of the late Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Donald Ray Pollock’s The Heavenly Table in giving no quarter to sentiment.

The main character, Miles Knox, is a Vietnam vet living in rural Indiana who saw some horrible things perpetrated there, and not just by the enemy. These episodes and his dead comrades haunt him, and when he’s under stress, they come roaring back into his head in sounds, smells, and sensations. He’s tried counselling with little apparent success. The only thing that relieves the stress is pumping iron. Since he’s no longer young, he has to jack himself full of steroids, which take their own toll. Maybe somewhat more responsible than a loose cannon, don’t get him angry.

His friend Nathaniel shows up with his eight-year-old nephew, Shadrach, who just saw his parents murdered. They were big-time drug dealers, but when the cops arrive, the trailer is clear of both drugs and money. Nathaniel  takes Miles on a long, drug-fueled night of pursuit and frustration. Whatever bad stuff happened that day, it’s only going to get worse.

Author Bill paints a bleak picture of rural America, swamped with opioids, fully stocked with guns, and overtaken by despair. (This is the theme of Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Demon Copperhead. An author has to find a way into such a morass, and Kingsolver chose Dickens’s David Copperfield for inspiration; Bill chose the Vietnam War and PTSD. Worlds where there are no easy answers.).

I wouldn’t recommend this book for the faint-hearted or easily offended, but if you are up for a bracing look at a segment of society rarely described so unflinchingly, this will do.

It took a while to get into the rhythm of Bill’s writing. He writes characters’ thoughts and dialog not just phonetically, but the way the characters perceive\s the words, adding considerable color to the text. Just when you think there should be an end to the legacy of Vietnam—a war that ended for the politicians some forty-five years ago—you are reminded that for many of the men who fought there, the war is a daily reality.

Great Listens of 2022

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The UK website CrimeFictionLover.com recently published my report of the five books I reviewed for them in 2022 that I liked best. The pool from which these excellent books were selected has some idiosyncracies. CFL covers new (more or less time-of-publication) crime fiction. A review of a book that’s a few months old is rarely accepted, which unfortunately is often when I get around to listening to the audio version. As a result, while I reviewed about 30 books for CFL in 2020, I read almost 80. I troll the list of award finalists for audio suggestions and find many good ones like:

Razorblade Tears: A Novelby SA Cosby – Not only an action-packed thriller full of story and steeped in compassion, but a remarkable narration by Adam Lazarre-White. Two men come to terms with their dead sons’ gay lives and with each other across America’s racial divide (nominated for multiple awards).

The Diamond Eye: A Novel by Kate Quinn – A fascinating WWII story, inspired by true events, of an unforgettable young woman: eagle-eyed Russian sniper, emissary of the Soviet government in its quest for US military support, and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Lots of interesting detail about how snipers work. Nicely narrated by Saskia Maarleveld.

Deer Season by Erin Flanagan – an intellectually disabled farmhand is suspected of a gruesome crime, and the couple who employs and looks out for him faces painful dilemmas (award nominee).

Trouble Is What I Do by Walter Mosley – Need I say more? Interesting people, good plot, fantastic narration by Dion Graham.

We Are All the Same in the Dark: A Novel by Julia Heaberlin – A cold case heats up in a small Texas town when an abandoned teenager is discovered. Lots of secrets. Lots of atmosphere. Solid female characters. I always enjoy Heaberlin. Multiple narrators, all good.

Black Hills by Nora Roberts – For me, the main character’s involvement with a large animal sanctuary was irresistible. Even if the romance was predictable, the big cats rarely were.

Joe Country by Mick Herron – The Slow Horses team is back in book 6, and in my opinion, Herron hasn’t put a foot wrong yet. Narrated by Gerard Doyle, a pleasure in itself.

Big Easy, Big Stories

The familiar traveler’s dilemma—what books to pack?—was easily solved for a recent trip to New Orleans. I had already set aside two ideal reads: my friend Tracie Provost’s New Orleans-based Under the Harvest Moon (book two in her under the moon series) and a collection of short stories about the Crescent City published by Akashic. As it turned out, both were entertaining late-evening companions.

Under the Harvest Moon

Tracie Provost’s books are packed with paranormal events, with vampires and werewolves and mages. Not at all the kind of book I usually read, so kind of thrilling as a result. Provost is so skilled at creating a consistent world for her unusual characters, with their unusual talents, that I’m never caught up short, thinking “Wait a minute . . .” Her heroine is Juliette de Grammont, a healer and a magic-using vampire, who had been staked for centuries and only recently revived. Still a young beautiful woman, Juliette’s occasionally dated ideas and struggles with technology amuse her millennial assistant, Jaime.

When the story begins, a New Orleans police detective who understands Juliette’s special powers calls her in to analyze a crime scene where a vampire and his girlfriend are both dead in a ritual killing. What has taken place, who is doing it, and why become more mysterious and more important as the number of killings increase.

There’s intrigue among the various covens in the city. Juliette’s coven has been reduced to her and Jaime, as its other members recently staged an unsuccessful coup against the City’s Grandmaster. A few from her coven were killed, but most are still out there . . . somewhere . . . As the risks mount and the evil motivation behind the killings gradually emerges, Juliette and her lover Josh must look for help from unusual sources—including the pack of werewolves living outside the city—for protection and help.

Provost makes the interactions among the characters quite real, almost ordinary—well, almost. She makes them eminently practical. For example, there’s someone they can call who comes with an after-crime clean-up team (he used to work for Al Capone) in order to hide various crimes. In fact, there’s a whole group of mages whose job it is to keep the paranormal world secret—the Gatekeepers. Even select members of the NOPD are in on it.

When you finish Under the Harvest Moon, you can be sure there’s a Book 3 on the way, and will await it eagerly! (You may want to use one of my affiliate links to find it on Amazon, as several books have this title.)

New Orleans Noir: The Classics

This collection, edited by Julie Smith, is a bit different than the usual Akashic collection, in that the 18 stories are not all contemporary. In fact, the earliest is from 1843. They include entries from revered authors like O.Henry, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams, as well as modern masters like James Lee Burke and Ace Atkins.

Overall, they provide a rich portrait of the city, its contrasts and its corruptions, its amusements and its shenanigans, as seen through these different eyes, with their very different, if precise ways of seeing. Quite a nice collection!

Book Review: Death and the Conjuror

Fans of locked-room mysteries should love debut author Tom Mead’s historical mystery, Death and the Conjuror. In 1936 London, elderly showman and conjuror Joseph Spector is called on to aid Scotland Yard detective George Flint, who hopes Spector’s skills at misdirection can lead him to figure out what really happened in a strange case that involves not one, but two locked-room murders.

German immigrant (sometimes referred to as a psychologist and sometimes as a psychiatrist) Dr. Anselm Rees has recently relocated to London, along with his daughter, Dr. Lidia Rees.(Mead wisely set the story a few years before the gathering war clouds would have further complicated the story.) The elder Dr. Rees has gradually acquired three patients—musician Floyd Stenhouse, actor Della Cookson, and author Claude Weaver.

Lidia and her playboy boyfriend Marcus Bowman arrive home late one night and learn Dr. Rees’s throat has been slit. For one reason and another, all three patients become suspects, along with an unidentified evening caller, daughter Lidia (who stands to inherit), and her boyfriend (who needs the money). The door to the office was locked that evening, as were the French windows, with their keys on the inside.

On the evening of another unproductive day of investigation, Flint receives an urgent call from the musician Stenhouse, who believes he’s being followed. Flint and his sergeant hear a shot, and fruitlessly chase a shadowy figure. Upon returning to the apartment building, they discover the second locked-room puzzle: the elevator operator is dead inside his small cage.

Although Spector provides occasional interesting disquisitions about the creation of illusions, his potential seemed not fully exploited. Stories about illusionists and (real-life) magicians usually include some spectacular demonstrations. In this story, inexorable logic wins out. Because the setup of the two murders was so complicated, many pages are required to explain them, as various theories are posed and discarded.

You may have the sense—despite the automobiles, hairstyles, and a few other signals—that this story could just have easily taken place fifty years earlier, given the dialog, the background narration, and many of the characters’ attitudes. It has a definite old-fashioned feel, which, on one hand, is part of its charm, and on the other, may distance you from engaging with the characters.

It is a locked-room puzzle in that fine tradition, with a surfeit of clues, red herrings, and suspicions. The clever and complicated plots the unknown antagonist concocts will likely keep you guessing all the way through.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight

If you enjoyed Riku Onda’s previous mystery translated into English, The Aosawa Murders, you’ll find many of the same attributes in her new psychological thriller, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight. It offers that same dreamy feeling and a quality of uncertainty about the characters’ perceptions. It’s almost as if the story were told by those very fish, trying to make sense of the light and dark around them through a veil of water.

The short chapters of this new book are related alternately by Chiaki (Aki) and Chihiro (Hiro), who met in the tennis club at college and were immediately attracted to each other. Paired up to play doubles, it seemed like they had played together their whole lives. When their parents learn about their friendship, they reveal that the young people are, in fact, brother and sister, twins separated when their mother could no longer take care of them both and gave daughter Aki up for adoption. Since age three, they were raised as only children.

To recapture the lost years of siblinghood, Aki and Hiro decide to share a flat in Tokyo and are very happy for a time. The relationship falls apart after a mountain hike when their guide is killed in a fall, and they are each wracked by suspicion that the other somehow engineered the tragedy. The novel takes place on their last night together.

Every chapter peels away another layer, as each of them is intent on extracting a confession about the guide’s death from the other. It turns out that the guide is connected to the twins in a way that might provide a motive for murder, but did it? Author Onda spreads out the revelations, and in large part, they’re the siblings’ differing impressions of the tragedy.

Unexpected fragments of memory find their places in the puzzle of their lives, as the deepening mystery flashes, twists, and turns much like the eponymous fish that Aki at one point describes.

The translation by Alison Watts effectively conveys this sense of gradual discovery—about the guide, about the siblings’ relationship, about their un-twin-like misinterpretation of the other’s state of mind, about the past, and, perhaps even about their futures. Onda has a lovely, slow-moving and relatively unadorned style of writing. But beneath the placid surface is a tidal wave of emotion. She minimizes physical description in lieu of emotional nuance, resulting in a complex and memorable story.  

Onda is a well-known Japanese novelist, whose works have won numerous top awards and been adapted for both film and television there. The Aosawa Murders was the first to be translated into English. It won a Best Novel award from the Mystery Writers of Japan and was selected as a 2020 Notable Book by The New York Times.

The Male Point of View

Kevin Tipple, on his wonderful Kevin’s Corner website, which includes mystery and crime fiction-related news, a blog, and book reviews, included the following guest post from me last Sunday. It covers an issue people often ask me about. Check him out!

Thank you, Kevin, for your willingness to host a blog essay related to my new mystery/thriller Architect of Courage. In it, protagonist Archer Landis is a successful Manhattan architect whose orderly life falls into disarray when the woman he loves is murdered. That’s just the beginning of a summer of disastrous events that befall him, which put him and everyone around him in danger. Events that, ultimately, he has to try to sort out.

I’m pleased with the reader response, and one question people often ask is, what was it like to write a book from the male point-of-view? First, I never considered having a woman protagonist for this story, so I had a male firmly in mind from the get-go. I took into account that he is a successful businessman and a lot of the story’s action takes place in his office, not at home. His role as the leader of a prominent architectural firm is essential to who he is, and fits his “let’s get on with it” personality. You see this in his interactions with his staff, helping them move forward through a variety of difficulties.

In thinking about this post for you, Kevin, I realized that, in fact, most of the principal characters in this novel are men: Landis’s two principal associates, his lawyer, the police detectives, his right-hand when situations become dangerous. Many conversations occur among these characters, and in them, especially, I worked on the gender issue. Women (at least women of my generation) were socialized to express themselves tentatively, “It’s just a suggestion, but would you like a roast beef sandwich? Or, maybe . . . something else?” whereas a man would say, “Let’s have a roast beef sandwich” and be done with it. Of course I’m exaggerating. (See how I did that? Tried to get you to go along with my example by using the “of course.”)

I reviewed all the dialog numerous times to make sure the “weasel-words”—the things you say to minimize importance or weaken a statement—were removed, except in instances where the speaker was genuinely unsure. I don’t know, what do you think? (See?) A document search found every instance of the word “need,” which I usually replaced with “want.” There’s a subtle difference between “I need you to finish that floor plan” and “I want you to finish.” Once you go on the hunt for weasel-words, they’re everywhere!

By excising that fluff from the men’s conversation, the women’s voices became more distinctive. Yes, there are women in Architect of Courage! One character readers single out is Landis’s receptionist/assistant Deshondra. She’s young and a practitioner of upspeak? You know what I mean? It makes sense that her conversation would be kind of (there I go again) a counterpoint for the men’s because of her youth, inexperience, and gender.

All this focus on how Landis expresses himself provides a window into the more fundamental issues of how he thinks, analyzes problems, and reacts to situations. Even though he doesn’t talk about feelings a lot, his behavior reveals what’s going on inside.

I have a second novel that includes chapters in alternating points of view, female (my protagonist) and male (a police detective). Compared to Archer Landis, I find the female protagonist harder to write. There’s too much “me” in there. She’s not me; I need her to bring her own self to the project. What I want to avoid is a book in which the main character seems to be the author projecting, what I call wish fulfillment literature. Action heroes are prone to this.

Thank you again, Kevin, and I hope your audience members who read Architect of Courage will enjoy it!

Have you read Architect of Courage yet? Order a copy here and check out that male point of view!